Chavisa Woods writes like everything is on fire because it is.
This year, she was awarded the Shirley Jackson Award, the Kathy Acker Award, and received her third nomination from LAMBDA for her story collection Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country (7 Stories Press). I became acquainted with Chavisa’s work through this story collection, though this is her third full-length fiction book.
I fell in love with the way Chavisa orchestrates a story, combining magic and stark realism. I met her at Anca Szilágyi’s book launch, which she attended with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, and was delighted to learn that she splits her time between Seattle and New York.
She is as marvelous of a storyteller in person as she is on the page and I am looking forward to taking a break from teaching to get to be a student again in her class Building The Story.
Corinne Manning: I’m excited to take your four-session class, Building the Story. Especially because I consider you to be such a master of creating tension in your short fiction. What does it mean to build a meaningful narrative?
Chavisa Woods: Building a good narrative is a craft that can be learned, and it parallels the process of building a physical structure. You have to carefully select each piece and place it just so, to be certain it will hold together. And yes, like you said, stability relies on an understanding of balance and tension. To create sustainable tension, you have to know which tools to use. Some tools are more compatible with certain building-blocks than others.
With writers who are in the earlier stages of their work, I often find that they are not totally aware of the different tools they are using to build a story. They’re reaching blindly into a box and pulling out whatever tool happens into their grasp.
I want writers who take my course to become more deliberate. I start off all of my courses by pulling the writers away from exposition, and making them very aware of when they are showing, and when they are telling, and the impact this has on the reader, then we go from there.
In this course, we’re going to be looking a lot at a few particularly enduring types of stories, and how they’re structured.
For instance, one of my stories, “Zombie,” which appears in my most recent collection, Things To Do When You’re Goth in the Country, repeatedly tricks the audience. At first, it’s set up as a classic creature-feature, horror story, then, it takes a surprising turn, and it becomes a classic coming-of-age tale, using tropes of children befriending an adult outcast who secretly has a heart of gold. It harkens back to Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, or similar relationships found in books and films like Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, The Secret Garden, and Now and Then.
In these stories, kids make friends with a troubled adult who treats the kids like peers, and maybe puts the kids through some slightly age-inappropriate scenarios, but ultimately ends up imparting much-needed wisdom to the children.
I took that trope, and I twisted it until it was something much darker, nihilistic, and unrecognizable as a “classic tale.” I did this to intentionally jar the reader. The emotional ending has an even greater impact after the reader has been lured into thinking they were reading something familiar. The twists also keep the reader guessing and wanting to understand what’s really going on, and in the end, the story was a mutated hybrid of the two things I camouflaged it as; it was a horrific coming-of-age tale.
CM: You are a writer that looks directly at the world as it is and though you are affected by and feel pain by suffering you don’t look away, particularly around intimate violence and endless wars. What are the ways you stay centered in your writing or think writing is important in general?
CW: Without literature, I would be lost. I don’t have to keep myself centered in writing anymore. I’ve built my life around it since I was young. I write because there is no alternative. It’s true, I do tend to lean toward the dark and strange. I also very much enjoy dark literature that has a sharp sense of humor. I love Harry Crews, and Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, and Harlan Ellison.
I like writing that peels a façade away, and reveals something that we need to look at, but are afraid to look at, or didn’t know how to see before.
CM: As someone who splits their time between Seattle and New York, where do you write? Take us to your favorite desks and writing spots. What sounds do you need to hear or not hear, things you need to see or not see?
CW: When I’m in New York City, I either write at my desk, in my room, next to a window that looks out over a loud and bustling Brooklyn street, or else, I go to the Cobra Club, which is a coffee shop by day, and a punk/rock ‘n’ roll dive bar by night, and a one-block walk from my apartment. Sometimes I transition with the venue, drinking coffee early in the day and writing for several hours, and then put my computer away, and switch to a happy-hour cocktail.
When I’m in Seattle, I write near my apartment on Capitol Hill, usually at Hopvine, or Victrola, or Harry’s Bar.
I hate silence when I’m writing. I like to be around people, and have the energy of a café or bar around me.
I’m very extroverted, and writing is already such a lonely and isolating practice, I need that bustle to feel content and focused.
Even in the middle of a well-trafficked café, when I’m writing a story, everything disappears, and when I come out of that entranced state for a breather, it’s nice to have other people around me.
CM: Something I love about your class descriptions is that rather than “teach” you use the words “lead” and “engage.” I know that you experienced a writing mentor in the gallery you lived in when you first lived in New York. Could you share some of that story and how that has affected your teaching philosophy?
CW: My mentor was a retired professor and novelist, Steve Cannon. Steve is blind, and he ran a gallery and small press (Tribes Gallery, and Fly by Night Press) in New York City, for many years, while blind. He’s currently eighty-two years old and is still running the press, although they have a more limited publishing calendar now. I can honestly say, he’s the most interesting, eccentric, and peculiar person I’ve ever met. He’s an established figure in the downtown NYC art’s scene.
As my mentor, Steve never pulled any punches when he was critiquing my work, and I think I benefitted greatly from that. He told me when something wasn’t working, and a couple of times, he advised me to scrap stories that weren’t working altogether, and move on to something else. That was a valuable skill to learn early on. I know too many artists who get stuck on projects that aren’t working, or that they’ve lost interest in, and they never finish anything because of it. But that is also an unusual thing for a mentor to advice someone to do (throw it away), especially in today’s sensitive climate. He didn’t worry about hurting my feelings though. He expected me to be dedicated enough to take some shots to my ego, and to know that he wouldn’t be being so harsh with me, and putting this much energy into me, if he didn’t believe in me.
He’s not of a generation that handled people with kid-gloves. His is more of a boot-camp style.
When I was twenty-one, he immediately put me to work as an assistant editor for his press, had me reading a new book every week, and writing reviews for his website. He insisted I learn about multicultural literature of the past, as well as contemporary authors. His motto for writers was, “Read! Read! Read!” He also pushed me to go to readings, open mics, and author events constantly, like several times a week. If I was broke, he’d pay for me to get in to literary events. He believed artists have a responsibility to be part of a larger community and he still doesn’t seem to separate artistic practice from participation in a community.
Steve and I have different styles, but some of what he taught me has definitely influenced my teaching philosophy, especially the need to read voraciously, though I do have a bit of a softer touch with my students than Steve does.
CM: Can you give us a sneak peek writing prompt that might appear in your class, Building the Story? Something to get us started and excited before class starts on the 24th.
CW: I structure my classes so that the writing prompts of each week build on the last prompt. The prompts are interconnected and designed to occur in a specific, consecutive order.
For instance, in the class I taught at Hugo House in the spring, Unsafe Spaces (a workshop for politically driven/socially relevant prose), the first week, I led the class in an exercise on writing in-scene, completely removing exposition.
The next week, we read an excerpt of Beloved by Toni Morrison, written from the perspective of a woman who was a slave, overhearing a white teacher instructing a class to outline her human traits and compare them with her animal traits.
We discussed the impact that writing from the perspective of marginalized characters, rather than those in power, has on the reader. We discussed under-representation of certain perspectives in literature, and how the story changes when the perspective changes.
Then, I instructed the class to write a short scene, written in-scene, without exposition, from the perspective of a subjugated person discovering something new about the people who have power over them.
The next week, we read a story by Gabriel García Marquez, “The Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” and we diagrammed the story through the lens of those in power and oppressed characters. We outlined the traits that made the old man with enormous wings the oppressed character in this story; the fact that he is physically different, a foreigner, possibly supernatural, sickly and weak, potentially physically stronger than those in power over him, potentially threatening, etc.
Then we outlined the many different ways the character is oppressed by those in power in the story, from the use of the authority of the church, to scientific expertise, to the fact that the subjugation of the old man is profitable, to physical torment and fetishization.
We made two lists; one of the characteristics of the oppressed character, and then ways those in power oppress the character. We found that at least one of these character traits and means of oppression was commonly found in famous stories about subjugation and revolt.
I then instructed the class to write a scene, again in-scene, without exposition as we had practiced the first week, from the perspective of the subjugated character, as they had practiced the second week, then to add another layer, by choosing one prominent characteristic for their main, subjugated character from the list, and to use at least one means of subjugating that character from the other list. So the lessons from each previous week, were applied to the current week’s exercise.
I design my multisession classes this way, so that each class compliments the next. I want my students to be able to create a cohesive line of learning from one class to another, and to apply the skills they’ve acquired in the previous class to the exercise in the following class.
With Building the Story, we won’t be focusing primarily on politically driven literature, and hierarchies of power and oppression. We’ll be focusing on the building blocks of narratives, and using very different prompts, but the class will be structured similarly, so that each session connects in some way to the following class, and hopefully, at the end, the students will have a well-worked story to take home.
Corinne Manning is a fiction writer, editor, and Hugo House instructor. You can learn more about Corinne’s work at corinnemanning.com.